Fitness for fertility and pre-pregnancy exercise
As a recent first-time mum, running coach Mary Jennings shares her fitness tips
Mary Jennings: Give yourself the best chance of having a comfortable pregnancy by starting out at a healthy weight. Photograph: Eric Luke
As potential first-time mothers, we diligently take our folic acid for months prior to becoming pregnant. We download fertility apps and read books and blogs on what to expect when expecting. We dream up baby names and start noticing ladies with bumps everywhere we go. Rarely do we consider exercise and fitness as part of the preparation in these exciting days of planning a family.
However, there is growing evidence that having a moderate level of fitness can help fertility, pregnancy and recovery from childbirth. Waiting to conceive can be a stressful time. When you exercise, you are also more likely to eat better and feel better. Your head is clearer and you are in a better position to manage this stress. In addition to fertility, your body needs energy, strength and stamina to carry your future baby. Pre-pregnancy is the time to get fit and prepare your body for what lies ahead.
As a coach, I have met plenty of women over the years who regret not looking after their bodies before, during and after pregnancy. These women have prompted me to prioritise fitness alongside pregnancy. When we started planning to have a baby last year, I made changes to my running-focused training programme. Once pregnant I knew marathons would not be on my to-do list, so I needed to find alternative exercise I would enjoy to keep me sane, strong and happy throughout pregnancy.
I replaced some of my long-distance running with more strength and mindful exercises. I took advantage of these pre-pregnancy months to experiment with fitness, set new challenges and, most importantly, appreciate this time I may never have to myself again. It’s very easy to wish away these waiting months. Having another goal as well as pregnancy makes each month a success in its own way.
Get a head start
If you are not fit and active prior to pregnancy, it will be harder to get fit and active during pregnancy. Pregnancy can be a challenging and busy time, and even with the best of intentions, being motivated enough to kickstart a fitness programme when tired, heavy and potentially nauseous is not likely.
It is not recommended to start any new or intensive exercise programme when pregnant. Add to this the extra limitations on what type of exercises are advised against in the different trimesters and you are left with a small amount of fitness options if you put off fitness until you are pregnant.
Fit for fertility
Prior to becoming pregnant, the focus is on fertility. Many couples struggle with fertility and each month the worry, stress and disappointment grows. Exercise can help take the focus off this pressure with the feel-good endorphins making everything seem a little easier. When couples are at the stage of looking for assistance with fertility, the experts will most often recommend looking at lifestyle first. Fitness, diet and weight can all play a helping hand with fertility.
Prof Mary Wingfield, clinical director at Merrion Fertility Clinic, meets couples every day with fertility issues. She agrees that exercise is certainly advised to help reduce the stress associated with infertility and also to manage body weight. “Studies in Australia and the UK have shown very clearly that if overweight women with infertility lose approximately 10 per cent of their body weight, more than half of them will conceive,” she says.
She recommends fitness and diet together to make the best impact. “Many studies show that obesity affects fertility, particularly in women with polycystic ovaries [PCOS]. From my experience at the clinic, it seems that a combination of diet and exercise is better than just diet or exercise alone, particularly in women with PCOS.”
Obesity and pregnancy
The problems with being overweight and unfit continue right into pregnancy. From a practical point of view, your quality of life during pregnancy can be impacted by obesity and lack of fitness. Simple actions like moving from floor to standing, getting in and out of the car or chasing after older kids all become harder when carrying more weight but not having the strength to support it. Give yourself the best chance of having a comfortable pregnancy by starting out at a healthy weight. Wingfield suggests that it is also a health risk. “Obesity increases the risk of diabetes and high blood pressure which are bad for the mother and for her baby,” she says.
Too fit to conceive
It is good to remember, however, that more exercise is not always better for women looking to become pregnant. Excessive exercise combined with low body weight can lead to a situation where many athletes have such low body fat that they don’t ovulate regularly or have periods. Most of us never push ourselves that far with an exercise programme, but Wingfield regularly meets women who push themselves to their exercise limits, are underweight and struggling with fertility.
Moderation is what is important for fertility and the health of the baby, she says. “Women who are underweight and who exercise excessively tend to have smaller babies. Small babies can have reduced organ development including brain development. There is also evidence now showing that very small babies are more likely to have problems with high blood pressure and other medical problems in later life,” says Wingfield.
For men . . .
It’s not just the ladies who need to consider lifestyle changes. The right weight and moderate fitness is just as important for male fertility. Obesity in men has negative consequences for sperm and fertility. At the other end of the spectrum, Wingfield advises avoiding putting the male body under excessive exercise stress. “Lots of studies show that excessive exercise can affect sperm counts but it has not been proven whether this actually affects fertility,” she says. Excessive heat is also not good for sperm and for this reason hot yoga, saunas and Jacuzzis are not recommended for men who are trying for a baby.
With a huge rise in endurance events such as triathlons and marathons, more men than ever are pushing their body to fitness challenges. There are great benefits to this type of training. However, it might be advisable to time the intensive peak of the training away from the time when trying for a baby. It is also worth noting diet and a whole new industry of sport nutrition supplements that ties in with these sports. Be mindful of adding anything to your diet that is not natural as it also may have an impact on fertility. One thing is for certain, once a baby arrives, there will indeed be less time for day-long Saturday cycles, so continue keeping fit but be mindful of the intensity.
Create your future
Exercise does not have to be about pushing your body to its limits. Fitness is about building your energy, relieving your stress and revitalising the body. If you can start pregnancy feeling fit, strong and confident, it will stand to you going forward. Once you find the activity that you enjoy, it becomes fun and part of your lifestyle. Maybe as a couple you can find something that you can do together. Fitness impacts positivity in so many areas of the body in addition to assisting fertility.
Unfortunately, there are no certainties that you will conceive easily. Whatever path your fertility and pregnancy journey follows, your body will be stronger and more resilient to handle whatever lies ahead when you have fitness and exercise as your therapy.
Mary Jennings is founder and running coach with ForgetTheGym.ie. Mary trains beginners and marathoners and everyone in between. Mary is also the creator of all our Irish Times Get Running programmes – Beginners Get Running, Get Running 10k and Get Running Stay Running. Sign up at irishtimes.com/getrunning